Dancing in the moonlight
I remember my first visit to the Moonlight Cafe many years ago, when friends invited me to join them for what they described as “the best Italian food you’ve ever had.”
They enticed me with stories of made-to-order food prepared in the exposed kitchen adjacent to the dining room, gigantic portions of pasta and sauce and the charisma of then-owner and chef Vito Renda. I remember the quaint restaurant, the packed house and the clamorous buzz that characterizes Italian hospitality.
Not much has changed at the restaurant in Dover. There is still intimate seating for 40 guests in the cozy dining room. You can still see the preparation and assembly of your meal only a few feet away from your table. And you can still bring your favorite bottle of wine to enjoy with your meal.
The one thing that has changed? Marc Dursunian is the new face of Moonlight Cafe. Dursunian acquired the eatery from Renda in early 2014 and spent his first two months training alongside the longtime owner.
“He handed me his secret recipe book,” says Dursunian, who left his home and career in Long Island, NY, and moved his small family to Dover to carry on the traditions set in place by Renda.
I met Dursunian at 9 o’clock on a sunny Saturday morning. He had been in the kitchen for several hours before I arrived, chopping, sautéing, and mixing ingredients in preparation for the weekend lunch and dinner crowd. I watched him dice onions and chop parsley as he shared his tale of switching careers from the home-theater business to the restaurant business, leaving what he described as “Big Bad New York” to live in small town U.S.A.
His greatest challenge and joy have been one and the same since taking over the business – connecting with the loyal customer base that Renda carefully cultivated during his eight years as chef and owner of Moonlight Cafe. Dursunian has a warm presence and a commitment to Renda’s original business model. He leads the intricate dance of the kitchen as he and staffers work in concert to produce a dining experience worth repeating over and over.
A few friends and I piled into the car that same Saturday night and headed north on Carlisle Road into the borough of Dover. We stepped into a full house of diners and were enveloped by old-world hospitality. We raised our voices and glasses of Chianti as we made our menu selections and nibbled on fresh bread. Our server delivered an order of cigar rolls – delicate rolls of phyllo dough filled with feta and mozzarella cheese, baked until crisp and served with a tangy marinara sauce.
Earlier in the day, I asked Dursunian which of the menu items was his favorite. That night, I ordered the shrimp champagne for my entrée per his suggestion. I was delighted by the generous serving of linguini, steamed shrimp, spinach and fresh tomatoes tossed in a creamy white sauce infused with raspberry champagne.
One of my dinner companions ordered Moonlight Cafe’s popular chicken afumicato, or “smoky chicken” – a flavorful ensemble of penne pasta, chicken breast, fresh spinach, sun-dried tomatoes and roasted red peppers, tossed in a smoky vodka-rosé sauce. We shared the rich flavors and varied textures of our dishes as the soundtrack to The Godfather played just beneath our conversation and laughter. One friend ordered the vegetarian panini, stuffed full of grilled eggplant and zucchini, tomatoes, mushrooms, roasted red peppers, house-made basil pesto and melted provolone cheese.
With stomachs full from our meals but craving a sweet finish to our dining experience, we ordered one crème brulee to share at the table. Dursunian makes his mother Irene’s custard-vanilla dessert in house and has mastered the art of the golden-brown torched sugar crust.
Generously sized pasta portions are a staple at Moonlight Cafe, but lighter menu options are abundant and beautifully presented. A classic antipasto salad is available, made with fresh Romaine lettuce, salami, ham, provolone, pepperoncini, tomatoes, olives and onions, served with house-made balsamic vinaigrette. Fresh greens, cured filet mignon and hazelnuts are combined and drizzled with a sherry vinaigrette to make the sherry hazelnut salad.
For a quick and casual bite over the lunch hour, Moonlight Cafe offers a selection of grilled paninis including smoked roast beef served with wasabi spread and melted American cheese. The smoked turkey panini is topped with provolone cheese and a light, flavorful avocado spread.
Joan Bainbridge and her husband, Lee, live near Moonlight Cafe and have been dining there three to four times per month since the café first opened under Renda’s ownership.
“My husband is a lover of traditional Italian food,” Joan says. “The penne pasta and meatballs is his favorite. He orders it every time we go there.”
Joan admits to having a more adventurous palate than her husband. Among her favorite dishes are the veal picatta and veal saltimbocca, butternut squash ravioli and classic lasagna.
She lovingly describes the jumbo lump crab cake dish, prepared with a sweet and savory blend of gorgonzola and apple. “It’s our favorite place to go in York County,” she says. Joan tells friends and acquaintances about the café on a regular basis, and finds that they respond with surprise and delight when they discover Dover’s best-kept secret.
I’m planning a girls night out at Moonlight Cafe – and I’ve already decided to order those gorgonzola-apple crab cakes.
• 4140 Carlisle Road, Dover; 292-5643
• Tuesday-Saturday, 11 a.m.-9 p.m.